Honorable Move Made in a Snap

Sara Renner
Canadian cross-country skier Sara Renner was on the receiving end of a kind gesture -- and a new ski pole -- from Norweigan coach Bjornar Hakensmoen. (By Andrew Medichini -- Associated Press)
By Mike Wise
Sunday, February 26, 2006

TURIN, Italy

Sara Renner was skiing the cross-country race of her life when she looked down at her pole and saw it had snapped.

She flailed and struggled uphill as the field passed her in seconds. And then something happened, maybe the most serendipitous, skin-tingling moment of the 20th Winter Games.

Another pole.

Out of nowhere.

Given to her by a person she would call "my mystery man."

Renner was back in the team sprint relay final, trying for her first medal in three Olympics, thanks to a stranger.

The stranger turned out not to be Canadian. Bjornar Hakensmoen is the Norwegian cross-country coach. His skier had just passed Renner and was now in medal contention. He didn't think twice about helping a competitor.

"Winning is not everything in sport," Hakensmoen said. "What win is that, if you achieve your goal but don't help somebody when you should have helped them?"

Hakensmoen is genuinely surprised people even want to talk to him about his deed. "I was just helping a girl who was in big trouble. If you saw her, you would do the same."

Amazing, no, an Olympic moment we never saw or may not have even heard about? We were too busy listening to Chad disrespect Shani and Shani disrespect Chad. We were glued to America's downhill cover boy, an oversold Alpine skier who literally Bode-ed the entire Olympics. Bode is a verb now. It means "to throw away."

Clarity can be found at the Games if you look hard, a clarity that can distill someone's character better than most life experiences. U.S. goalie Chanda Gunn, refusing to shake hands with the Swedish women's hockey team after the Americans' stunning semifinal loss. France's Pierre-Emmanuel Dalcin, raising his middle finger after he failed to complete the Super-G. A pair of Austrian Nordic skiers, bolting the Games after Italian authorities began a drug investigation.

But character also comes out at the Games in ways that touch and inspire. Joey Cheek, the U.S. speedskater who donated the $40,000 he earned for winning gold and silver medals to the children of Darfur. Zhang Dan, the Chinese pairs figure skater who slid violently to the boards after being dropped by her partner, but got up, finished in pain and captured the silver medal.

Crass behavior, commercialism and gigantism are conspiring to do in the Winter Games. They keep getting bigger, less quaint, less about the athletes and their obstacles and more about the event. Like the Super Bowl, it is becoming more about saying you went, attending the parties, than experiencing the moment.

Yet Hakensmoen proved there is still an abundance of human majesty at the Olympics.

He was working his last Olympics as Norway's coach. Cross-country skiing is the country's national sport, and Hakensmoen wanted dearly to bring medals back to his homeland. But he did not think twice when he saw Renner. This is what sportsmen do in Norway. Your opponent is down by means other than their own doing and you help them rise. Even if it means losing a medal yourself.

"They expect me to do such things," Hakensmoen said.

Sara Renner learned she had Graves' disease after the 1998 Nagano Games. Her thyroid was removed, but she refused to let the affliction end her career. She competed again in Salt Lake City, never finishing better than eighth in any event. In 2003, she married Canadian Alpine skier Thomas Grandi after the couple and their guests skied across the Continental Divide for a ceremony in the Canadian Rockies. Healthy again. Married. All that was missing was an Olympic medal.

In cross-country skiing, a snapped pole makes you a bird with a broken wing. The race is often over. Within seconds, she watched skiers from Finland, Sweden and Norway go by with Canada's medal hopes.

"I didn't even have time to have an 'Oh, [no]!' moment, it was all so fast," said Renner, who took three or four wobbly strides before Hakensmoen appeared, pole in hand. Maybe 15 seconds had been lost.

Replacing a pole for an opposing skier is not a freak occurrence in Nordic skiing. In 2002, Italian gold medalist Stefania Belmondo went from first to 10th in the 15-kilometer race when her pole broke. Courtesy of a French coach, who handed her a pole, she caught and passed all nine en route to a stirring victory. The courtesy is even more prevalent in Norway.

"We talked about this as a group before the Games," Hakensmoen said. "Our policy is to help others when they need help."

Even when it costs your nation a medal? "How can you be proud of a medal if you win when someone else's equipment is not working?" he said. "You have to help."

The pole Hakensmoen gave Renner was seven inches longer than she was used to, but she recovered in the team sprint relay final. Canada was a scant 2.5 seconds out of the lead again. She and teammate Beckie Scott would go on to win the silver, collapsing into the snow like jubilant children afterward.

The Norwegians finished fourth. Not one person in Norway has sent Hakensmoen an angry letter about costing his country a medal.

Quite the opposite. Norwegians have applauded his sportsmanship, as have Canadians. A maple-sugar farmer in New Brunswick has mailed 800 liters of maple syrup to Norway. A hotel in Banff has offered a two-week stay, Hakensmoen said. Flowers and letters cover the front steps of the Norwegian Embassy in Ottawa.

Wild, huh, a 36-year-old man, admittedly never a good enough skier to make the Norwegian national team, is today an Olympic hero in Canada? Hakensmoen feels uncomfortable about the attention. He sounds like a man who returned a lost wallet to its owner. "Why would anyone think of doing something different?" he said.

"I think a lot of people are lining up to give me poles now," Renner said, laughing. "You could really do well with all those vacations and food."

A couple of days after the event Renner walked into the wax room in Pragelato, where the technicians prepare the skis for competition. The room was empty, so she left an expensive bottle of Italian Barolo wine with a note that featured a little picture of an Italian chef. " Grazia ," it read. Inside, Renner wrote, "Thank you for the pole." The race had been on Feb. 14.

"He was my valentine," Renner said.

She met him a few days later. "Thank you so much," she said.

"No, thank you," Hakensmoen said.

Sometimes you get so caught up in thinking too deeply and analytically about the Games that you forget to go outside in the sun, amid the mountains, snow and the authentic heroes. Sometimes you forget how a simple act of kindness and sportsmanship is what the Olympics were supposed to be about.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company